Understanding Financial Aid Gapping


If you’ve been researching college funding for very long, you’ve probably heard that sometimes your student’s financial aid does not match the amount you actually need to pay for them to go to college.


The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is sometimes part of the problem – it can be much higher than your family expects! But even if you can meet your EFC, there are times when the remaining financial aid doesn’t cover the cost of attendance. That difference is called a financial aid gap or financial aid gapping.


Understanding Terminology and How It’s Used

It can be distressingly difficult to compare two different college financial aid offers. Part of this is because basic terms can mean different things at different schools. Even simple words like “need,” “aid,” or “need-blind admission,” mean different things at different schools.


If a college’s financial aid award doesn’t cover all of the student’s need, the student has been “gapped.” Gapping refers to colleges not covering 100% of students’ financial need.


Schools who use the CSS profile to determine financial need can come up with very different numbers than the normal FAFSA contribution, and the financial aid formulas the schools use are completely up to them.


In addition, schools only tell part of the financial story, even in a net price calculator. For instance, some schools report the average net price based on income categories using their own institutional methodology rather than the federal methodology.


All of this leads to a lot of frustration when it comes to figuring out where your student should attend school. And it can lead to a lot of financial aid gaps you weren’t expecting.  



How a Financial Aid Gap Affects Paying for School

Because you may face a financial aid gap when your student’s full financial aid is considered, it’s important to understand that your EFC is the minimum you should expect to pay for school.


Only a handful of schools claim to meet 100% of a student’s need every time. Usually, these are highly selective and competitive colleges. Most students do not attend these elite schools, instead attending schools NOT meeting 100% of need and will face a financial aid gap of some kind.


Many schools will meet the full need for some students, but don’t have the money for everyone. It’s important to know how schools prioritize aid before your student applies to schools. If a school focuses on merit aid to draw in high achievers, an honors student may do better than average at getting merit and/or need based aid to help avoid a gap.


If you have a low EFC, then the financial need you have is higher. In that case, your student will want to focus on schools more likely to offer significant need-based aid. Otherwise, you may face a large financial gap.


[What’s the difference between merit and need based aid?]


To discover which colleges are better for families with low EFCs, students can look up the average net price by income category for specific colleges at College Navigator. You can also look up the average percentage of need met on college search websites that use the common data set, like CollegeData.


How to Handle a Financial Aid Gap

So if you’re facing a large gap, what should you do? There are several options.


First, if you’ve done your research while your student is still searching for schools, you can focus on applying to colleges that are known to be more generous and more likely to meet your full financial need. To find this information out, our College Free Money Finder has all the information you’ll need to find the schools more likely to offer your student merit scholarships. 


You can also compare schools based largely on how large the financial aid gap will be, and your student can choose to attend the cheapest one. Or, you can look for other ways to save money on school – if the college is close to home, your student may be able to live at home for at least a year or two to save money.


Another option is to ask the financial aid office at your child’s preferred school to reconsider their aid package. Appeals are always available, and the worst they can do is say no.


[How to write a successful financial aid appeal letter.]


Avoid a Gap with the Right Applications

With help, you can focus your college search on schools that are more generous with students in your child’s situation. Whether they’re an honors student, active in the arts, or your family has a very high financial need, there are schools that are right for you.


Remember, your student can’t get financial aid from a college he/she doesn’t apply to, so make sure you do the necessary research BEFORE your student sends in applications.


The time before applications are due, is the most important time to do research on financial aid. Once deadlines have past and your student receives acceptances and financial aid offers, your options may be limited if your student hasn’t applied to the “right” schools with financial aid policies to help you avoid dealing with a financial aid gap.













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